A man and his mules

Mule man: John Sears walks his three mules “Little Girl,” “Lady” and “Pepper.” The foursome promotes awareness about the takeover of urban sprawl. They were spotted in Novato before making their way across the Golden Gate Bridge last weekend. Courtesy of Novak Photos

Most people do a double-take and can’t help snapping a picture when they see 65-year-old John Sears walking down the street.

Tan and weathered from years of exposure, he wears his experiences as a traveler in the lines of his face. But what catches people’s eyes the most are his three unusual companions: his pack mules “Little Girl,” “Lady” and “Pepper.”

With his trusty pooper-scooper in hand and faithful mules following behind, Sears reached a major milestone in his journey last Friday, reaching the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time. But he wasn’t able to cross into San Francisco the way he had planned.

Originally from rural Mill Valley, Sears has been traveling on foot with his mules through 16 states for nearly three decades. With few expenses and no internet connection, he has one goal in mind: to increase awareness about the slow takeover of urban sprawl that is eliminating all means of travel besides the automobile.

“There has to be a balance struck between the megalopolis and the natural world,” Sears said. “The megalopolis is out of control; it has no bounds and is smothering us. That’s the message of this.”

Sears advocates a simpler way of life, which he discovered after living outdoors with his four-legged companions for almost 10 years. The kinship between the man and his mules is apparent, although his three mules aren’t welcome everywhere.

He was cited and fined last November for illegal camping at Torrey Pines State Reserve near La Jolla, Calif. He was then arrested in June for walking on the shoulder of Highway 29; his mules were taken by animal control.

Still, these setbacks have failed to discourage Sears. He continued walking towards the Golden Gate Bridge, hoping to become an exception to the laws restricting tethered animals from entering and using the bridge roadway on foot.

Sears was steadfast in his belief that he should be able to cross with his mules, saying “It’s important to claim our right to use the public thoroughfares, and the bridge is no exception.”

Ultimately, after walking the span of the bridge and deeming it safe for his mules, Sears requested permission to cross, but was refused by the deputy general manager of the bridge. They offered Sears and his mules a trailer ride across by the National Park Service Police.

It was a difficult compromise to make for Sears. “We’re about being outside, staying outside and staying away from automobile dependency,” he said. “We don’t want to let it take over our lives and separate us from the ground.”

In the end, however, he chose to accept. He is confident that this will be the first of many crossings and that someday he’ll be able to set an example for others trying to cross on foot with their animals.

Though Sears generally only enjoys the company of his mules and the nature he adores, filmmaker John McDonald often catches up with the group to film a documentary on their remarkable journey. McDonald maintains a website and Facebook page for Sears so people can follow the traveler and his mules.

To learn more about their journey, visit 3mules.com.

Contact Sumaiya Mubarack at sumaiyam@marinscope.com.

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